Zaffirini, First Hispanic woman elected to the Texas Senate, reflects on career

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Texas Senate Media

When State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) first visited UT to attend a football game at 15 years old, she wasn’t thinking of going to college. Three degrees from UT later, she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Texas Senate. 

A Laredo native, Zaffirini is the second-highest-ranking senator as well as the highest-ranking woman and Hispanic senator. She holds a 100 percent voting record and has passed more bills than any other legislator in Texas history. 

“After I was elected in 1986, people kept asking me, ‘Aren’t you proud to be the first Mexicana in the Texas Senate?’ and I said, ‘Well, no. I’m really very disturbed it’s taken so long to elect the first Mexican-American woman to the Texas Senate,’” Zaffirini said. 

When the subject is brought up today, Zaffirini questions why it took so long to elect a second Hispanic woman to the Senate and even longer to elect a third. Currently there are only two Mexican-American women in the Texas Senate.

“I believe very strongly that the Texas Legislature and the United States Congress should reflect the demographics of the state and of our country, respectively,” Zaffirini said. “We should have more women in the Senate and in the House, and we certainly should have more Mexican-Americans, especially Mexican-American women.”

During her time at UT in the ’60s, Zaffirini was keenly aware of the lack of gender and ethnic diversity around her. Nearly all her classmates were white men, and all her professors were male. Because she was married and under 25 at the time, her grades were no longer delivered to her parents but to her husband, who was also a UT
student, instead.  

Having experienced underrepresentation in the classroom, Zaffirini entered politics hoping to promote diversity. With 13 years of teaching experience under her belt, Zaffirini began advocating for education, health and human services. 

UT alumna Diana Fuentes, a student in two classes Zaffirini instructed at Laredo Junior College in the late ’70s, worked for the senator during her first term and reported on her years later while covering the Legislature in Austin. 

“[For Zaffirini], being able to do a good job doesn’t have to do with whether you’re a man or a woman, it has to do with whether you have the ability [and] the skills to get a job done,” Fuentes said. “Politicians sometimes don’t realize the effects of what they do at the legislative level and she cares, it really matters to her. It is nice to see her put into practice what she had taught.”  

Throughout her career, Zaffirini has received more than 900 awards for her work in the Legislature, public service and communication. UT named her a Distinguished Alumna in 2003, awarded her the Presidential Citation in 2013 and The Daily Texan inducted her into its hall of fame in 2016. Earlier this year, Zaffirini also received the Moody College of Communication Outstanding Alumna Award. 

Moody College Dean Jay Bernhardt said he chose her because of her numerous accomplishments, outstanding communication abilities and contributions to the state, University and Moody College.

“We’re very proud that Senator Zaffirini is one of our own,” Bernhardt said in a Moody press release. “She is certainly a treasure to the state of Texas and to the University of Texas and we’re always proud to have her support and to support her.” Zaffirini said she encourages young people who are interested in government to get involved as early as possible, whether it be through securing an internship at the Capitol or campaigning for a candidate.

“There are so many ways for young people to participate,” Zaffirini said. “Whatever a student’s course of study is, whatever degree a student has chosen, there is always a way to participate in the governmental decision-making process.”